August 6, 2010

The Choice

Category: News — Ira @ 6:47 pm


This earth, this life, that is…that we have seen and known…
that has broken our hearts, maddened our brains, and torn
the sinews of our lives asunder….

Quick are the mouths of earth, and quick the teeth
that fed upon this loveliness. You, who were made
for music, will hear music no more: In your dark
house, the winds are silent…

—Thomas Wolfe

I don’t know the family, or the particular characters involved. But from the second I heard it weeks ago, the tragic drama of the story deeply moved me. With a keen sense of awe and horror and disbelief. I’d never heard anything quite like it before, and couldn’t shake it off. That’s why I took the time to write a “real” blog this week.

Tragedies unfold around us every day. People die unexpectedly. Sometimes violently. From accidents on the road, in cars and on motorcycles. And countless other fluky ways. Each time, we read about it, hear about it, and other than normal reactions of sympathy, shrug it off. If we don’t know the victims involved, at least, that’s what we do. And that’s fine. We can’t be walking around, burdened by every tragedy. Wouldn’t be healthy, the continuous mental strain.

Some few of you who read this will recognize the details and know the names. But it’s really not that important, who they are. Ordinary people, living their lives as best they can in accordance with the dictates of their faith. I know of them, near kin to a few of my closest friends in Lancaster County. And from my friends I heard the story.

The family used to live here, in Lancaster County. Solid Amish stock. Then, some years ago, they moved to upstate New York. Some plain community, Beachy or Charity or some such ubiquitous group. Anymore, from my perspective, those groups all seem pretty much the same. The family adapted well, both to the new area and the new lifestyle.

There were children. Eight daughters and two sons. A large family, by any standards other than the Amish. In time, the older children grew into adulthood.

They lived on a farm in their new community. Scrabbled a living from the tough rocky upstate New York soil. The father also had an outside business of some sort. Overall, the family prospered. And the children grew.

The back of their farm borders the Susquehanna River. The children liked to swim and wade the river during hot summer days. Over the years, they got to know the stretch of water that bordered their farm. They spent many happy hours there, splashing and swimming.

This year, the early summer drought took its toll on their farm and crops. Stifling heat, day after day, and no rain for weeks. One hot afternoon in early July, some of the children decided to head down to the river for a swim. Three or four of the girls. And the younger of the two sons, probably around 18 or 20 years old.

They walked to the back end of the farm to the river banks. The water was low, from the drought. On the normal stretch they knew, no spot was deep enough in which to swim. So they waded in, cooling down. Splashed about. And the story could have ended there.

Then the brother and one of the sisters, who was 16 years old, decided to go down the river, to unfamiliar territory, in search of deeper waters. They wanted to swim, not wade. And in that heat, who can blame them?

They told the others of their plan and set out. Around the bend they splashed, disappearing from the view of their siblings.

They waded on, the water was still shallow. Up ahead, another bend, and some large rocks. Maybe the water would be deeper there, so they could swim. They approached the rocks.

The actual details as told to me were sparse and sketchy. And even most of those are not that important. What happened as the two young people approached the bend and the rocks is the story that haunts the mind.

Blithely wading along, they suddenly, with no warning, plunged into an 8 ft. drop-off in the river bed. At the bend, around the rocks, the waters swirled in a vicious vortex. Sucking them both down into the depths.

They could swim. Not that well, but they could. As the waters closed around them and drew them down, down, they fought to resurface. Somehow, they both got back up, into the air. He struggled, closer to the shore. She was right behind him. Almost, he could drag himself out. But the hungry waters pulled at him. She flailed and struggled.

I don’t know if it all happened in silence, or if they had the breath and strength to speak to each other or shout for help. I don’t know if either of them panicked as they struggled in the water.

He would make it out. Just barely. And then she grabbed hold of him, her hands clamping on him like a vise. In utter desperation, she hung on. To her older brother. He would save her.

Mere seconds had passed. Exhausted and stunned, he hung on, either to the grass or maybe a branch by the bank. Still she held on to him. Don’t let go. Don’t let go.

And he felt his grip slipping; she was pulling him back in. If he let go, he would not have the strength to fight the water anymore.

At that instant, with absolute clarity, he knew he had to make a choice. Try to save himself and his younger sister. And drown if he slipped back in. Or save himself. But only if he shook her off, broke free of her deadly grip on him.

I don’t know what thoughts flashed through his mind, and don’t really care to know. But at some point in that frozen moment, he knew that unless he shook her off, they would both die. He did not have the strength to pull both of them out of the water’s vicious unrelenting grasp.

So he made the only choice he had. He shook her off and broke free. The churning, pitiless waters instantly swallowed her, pulled her under. She disappeared and did not resurface.

His little sister, who had tagged along with him all her life. His sister, of his blood and bone and flesh. His sister, whom he loved. Gone, below the waters.

He dragged himself onto the bank. Lay there for a brief moment, in total shock. Then he stumbled to his feet and staggered back to his other sisters who had stayed in the shallow waters back around the bend.

He gasped out his tale, and they rushed back to the farm for help. He knew it was a futile thing, that no help existed anywhere that could do any good now.

And he was right. It was too late. There was no hope. None. Their sister was dead. Later that afternoon, the rescue workers retrieved her limp body from where it rested at the bottom of the hole in the river. Sixteen years old. Gone.

The family reeled from the shock and grief. Four days later, on a Saturday morning, they buried her in the graveyard by their little church. Their relatives and friends, including many Amish from Lancaster County, attended the funeral. And deeply mourned their loss of one so young and innocent.

Even from a safe emotional distance, it is a hard and bitter thing to contemplate. The loss of a vibrant young life. Of a beautiful girl of sixteen, on the threshold of adulthood, who had everything before her. Family. Friends. Eventually, in the natural course of things, a husband and children of her own. Now snuffed out. All her tomorrows, all her dreams, all she would have been in the course of a long and fruitful life. All cut short in one brief and terrifying instant.

We are told to mourn with those who mourn. And in this case, it is not hard to do. We can, even now, pause and reflect on the family’s loss and say a prayer for their well being.

But to me the true drama, the real story resides in the cruel choice. It simply defies comprehension. The choice her brother was forced to make in the span of a few fleeting seconds. It is very rare, for any human to be confronted with such a stark decision in such brutal circumstances. With such tragic consequences. But it does happen, as it did here. A choice of life or death. Your own or another’s.

He made the right call. The right choice. Had he done otherwise, the family would have mourned the deaths of two of their children at a double funeral. And that day would have been far more tragic than it was.

But that truth is probably cold comfort to him. I don’t know him, but my heart goes out to him. The utter devastation in the desolate fields of his mind. Drained of tears, wracked by waves of guilt and grief. The bitter pain of loss increased a thousandfold.

How will he ever get past that? How will he deal with it, and go on to live a productive life? How will he even go on at all? His future forever tinged, his dreams incessantly haunted by vivid nightmares of memories from that day.

It seems impossible, to those of us viewing from a distance. Impossible that a young man could ever heal from the searing memories, the scars, the brutal shock of such unfathomable emotional trauma.

But it’s not impossible.

From my own experiences in the not-so-distant past, I know that the Lord extends grace to those of His children who are passing through the fires of unimaginable shock and loss. It seems like such a trite and clichéd thing to say. It’s the kind of stuff people always spout. Often by rote, with no real concept of what they’re saying.

But it’s true. Simple specific grace. That’s what got me through a few years back. And continues to.

Not that I would consider my experiences as even remotely comparable to these events. But still, the grace was there. I could feel it. Even though I didn’t think to ask for it, particularly. I could feel it, as I huddled helpless in the eye of the savage storm. Enveloping me. Not those who weren’t involved, those who stood in sympathy on the sidelines and wondered how I could take it. Just me. It was enough. More than enough.

And the Lord will pour out the necessary grace for this family, too. Especially for the brother. Not that he won’t have to deal with the guilt and grief and upheaval, again and again. And the flashbacks. For a long time. He will. And not that he shouldn’t get some serious heavy counseling. He should.

Life is a gift for the living. All the living. Including the wounded. And the deeply traumatized. A gift to receive. To live. To heal. To move forward into the future. To walk in awareness. To acknowledge and accept the past, however difficult or painful. To live, in time, in settled contentment. And joy, too, can and will return with a new dawn.

Ultimately, our choices define who we are and how we live. It’s all there for the taking. It can all come in time. Even in the aftermath of harrowing, heartbreaking loss.

Even in circumstances such as these.

As I post this, they are assembling. From points all across the nation. From the east to the west. From Pennsylvania to Montana. Well over a hundred people, by all accounts. Maybe as many as two hundred.

It’s the first ever ex-Amish reunion held in Bloomfield, Iowa. The brainchild of Ed Yoder and my nephew John Wagler, among others. This weekend at a park close to town. It will be an interesting and exciting time.

Any ex-Amish person who ever lived in Bloomfield is invited. That would include a lot of people I wouldn’t know, because I left back in the late 80s. More than twenty years ago. Some ex-Amish who attend might not even have been born then. But it still would be a huge blast to attend. Meet old friends and acquaintances, and make new friends.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it. Well, I could have, but it would not have been a responsible thing to do. Not with deadlines looming like Judgment Day, and so much yet to write. As I explained to Ed Yoder, the only thing that could possibly keep me away is the thing that is keeping me away. So I’m home, plugging away, wishing I were there.

The Bloomfield church fathers, it seems, are not at all amused about the whole thing. They are quite grim, in fact. A week or so ago, Bloomfield’s most powerful Bishop even stood in church and sternly forbade any church member to attend. Ah, well. Bearish as ever, they are. Some things never change.

I hope this event is so successful that there will be another reunion before too long. Maybe in a few years. Next time, I will make every effort, including procrastinating on then-current deadlines, to attend.